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Music : December 03, 2000

Three masters

Lakshmi Viswanathan

The writer is a Chennai-based dancer.

Maestro of the sarangi

The auditorium was filled to capacity. As I entered I asked: Who is singing ? It turned out to be a sarangi recital by Pandit Ramnarayan... so much did the music sound like that of a voice that I was not surprised to learn from the Ustad himself later that the sarangi has long been considered closest to the human voice in Hindustani music.

Rakesh Sinha

I was on a gently swaying elephant riding up a short hill on which sprawled the magnificent Amber fort in Rajasthan. Ahead of us sprinted a young rustic boy, playing a quaint yet romantic ditty on a home-crafted string instrument. He bowed away with energy and the melody struck a chord in my heart. An entire Rajput culture fleeted through my mind ... the romance of princes and palaces, peasants and springtime, twirling desert-red skirts and the celebration of Holi. This music, this instrument, ringing in the clear air which enveloped a landscape of barren beauty, must have been here among these people for centuries. This is the origin of the music of the sarangi. It sings about love, life, warriors and village folk.

I learnt later from the great maestro that there are at least sixty variations of the sarangi being used in the music of North India. He believes that the name is derived from "Saurangi" - hundred-hued. Hence its wide range of tones , and its capacity to express a myriad moods and emotions.

Almost single-handedly, Pandit Ramnarayan has elevated the status of the sarangi from being only an accomanying instrument to that of a solo concert instrument.

He has codified the technique of playing this instrument and has even devised ways of bowing which clearly defines its range of reproducing notes. As many know, the technique of bowing is the most supreme skill in making any stringed instrument with no frets produce the melodies of the intricate ragas in the Hindustani tradition. To this end Ramnarayan has strived, giving a difficult-to-handle instrument a status never seen before. In the process he has carved a niche for himself in the plethora of stalwarts of music in the last century.

The sarangi had enjoyed a place in the salons of great centres of music like Benares, Lucknow, Delhi and Jaipur where both royalty and nobility patronised music and dance. A long period saw it almost as a signal to indicate the perfomance of Kathak dance in a nobleman's courtyard or in a dancer's haveli. Wafting through the night air, the sound of the sarangi, and the ghungroos (ankle bells) of dancers, literally beckoned the cognoscenti to see performances of Kathak, where the predominant mood was poetic, and sensuous. With the waning of that culture, the sarangi too began to fade and might have been relegated to oblivion had it not been painstakingly resurrected on the modern concert stage as an accompanying instrument to great singers. The two interacted and enriched their music.

Yet the intricacy of the instrument, its demands on the player, the difficulty in tuning it, all, served to diminish its predominance in concerts. It looks small, is made of one piece of hollow wood, is held upright, resting on the lap of the perfomer.The three main strings are made of gut, and the fourth, a drone, is of brass. Beneath these, there are atleast 35 or 40 sympathetic strings, all of which have to be tuned chromatically. The fingering, with pressure put on the strings by the finger nails, is not only tricky but quite painful.

Pandit Ramnarayan has mastered the art of coaxing the sarangi to cover a great gamut of ragas. His playing is creative and imaginative. A singer par excellence, he knows what the instrument in his hand should do, and how it can surpass any voice in emoting.

The range of ragas which a maestro like Ramnarayan can command is enviable. He has seen his precursor, learnt from great musicians, and has eventually bowed to the instrument itself - an embodiment of the goddess of all music, Saraswathi.

On a spiritual journey

'To me, music is a sadhana. To me it is a dialogue with the divine, this intense focused communication with the ultimate other. Music cannot be evaluated as something which has any relative value. It is so uniquely ephemeral yet tangibly emotional that one can only say that it stirs the mind and beyond. Ultimately it should stir the soul."

The words of a great artist always make me wonder whether people ever listen to them to understand their music better. Is the process, the making of an artist of any relevance, or is the end product, a show, staged on a dais, alone enough to derive pleasure from the music the artiste creates. Questions such as these come up when one encounters particularly serious and sensitive artistes. They speak their mind, they have the authority of knowledge, and experience. Above all, they speak to reach out to a few more besides their average fans, for, out there they know, they can find receptive minds who want to go deeper into the experience of that elusive pleasure, Rasanubhava.

Kishori Amonkar has no show-biz personality. Curiously slim with a predominant nose adorning her face, she crouches over her surmandal, strumming it as if it is a prop to give her strength. She does not look like a performer, eager to display her skill. No routine formula is followed in the presentation.

"I believe in the guru sishya parampara," she says. I don't believe in learning from texts or cassettes. Students nowadays learn dead music. Learning from a guru is live learning. It is learning with a soul. It is a give and take of the souls. Our music is the fifth Veda. The Vedas teach you Brahma Vidya. You cannot learn that from a machine. If you go on contemplating and meditating upon the divine art, I am sure you will reach the ultimate destination in your music - which is brahmam. I am trying to reach that.

She is an ardent devotee of Raghavendra Swami. Her music is an offering at his feet, an offering of devotion, love.

I wonder how she fulfills her responsibility as a performer with this mission of bhakti as her goal. And what about the ordinary listener, who is like a road sign on her journey to reach a spiritual goal. "This art needs meditation. It is not that I do not love the public. It is because of them that I am here today. I consider each one of you as an embodiment of Raghavendra Swamiji. When I sing you become him. But I want to see him. I have been moving away from performances. Eventually I will only teach. That is my goal."

Kishori thinks that if the audience is not fully immersed in her music, perhaps it is her own short-coming. "If you see Balaji standing in front of you... what will you do? You will get stuck to that place. You will not look back." Arresting a listener's total attention is what music is all about, if indeed it is music of that superior quality.

Kishori has thoughts about trends and western influences. "If you know what the Indian mind, the Indian intellect, the Indian body is, then I think we will not get ourselves westernised. I feel our religion has a lot to say, a lot to give, if only we pay attention."

Volumes have been written about the aesthetics of art. Kishori sums up a truth very simply. "We have given an entertainment value to this music. Singing is different, practising is different, performing is different. These are three different aspects of music. I give importance to singing... What is singing after all... it is talking to your soul. It is an inside communication which you are when performing, trying to throw out. naturally it will diminish in value.

Kishori believes formatting in performance has robbed both north and south Indian music of their original depth of feeling. "How can you measure feeling? If I say 'Lakshmi, I love you,' you must feel the vibration." The formula of tempo, the sharing of time between singer and accompanist at set times in set patterns, all this, she feels, have robbed spontaneity, and intensity in music.

Is it possible to resurrect this other music, I think aloud.

Formats are for students, Kishori says. They need to be guided, safeguarded. For me, I must plunge into the air, and follow that feel, and be that feel myself. I pray to give me strength to go there.... which is obstruct. There's nothing to hold on to, you are supportless. But you are free."

"I learn a lot from my students. They are very intelligent. You can't just be sentimental and devoid of intellect. You can't be a genius without a mind. A perfect balance between intellect and heart - it is known as Siam - in Indian religion. This is how we reach for Moksha. You must understand that you need control to do that.

What about the North and South Indian systems of music... is there a meeting point, I ask. "I do not believe in these bifurcations. The sruthis are the same, the ragas are almost the same. I want you to blend it into a whole, you should think of it as a world of notes. We should not put too many words, too many rhythmical acrobatics into our singing. Basically, I think it is high time the instrumentalists change, and get out of this acrobatic syndrome with the percussionists. They can't go on deceiving people. These are just gimmicks."

With disarming faith Kishori Amonkar says "I want to gain moksha with my music. I will do anything to reach there in this life. I don't want to be born again to do that."

Queen of Thumri

Shobha Gurtu has a voice that pleads, cajoles, entices, prays and finally drowns you in a sea of emotion. An individual of extraordinary versatility, this doyen of Thumri singing who belongs to an artistic family with a long history from Goa, is the undisputed queen of her genre today. She must have inherited some of her enviable talent including her expressiveness and histrionic capabilities from her mother, who , we are told was one of the most sought after dancers and singers of her time. Apparently Manekabai Shirodkar, the mother, taught her daughter every nuance of singing. The little girl, Shobha, was encouraged to sing at religious festivals and soon her talent came to be reckoned with by all.

B.N. Khazanchi/Fotomedia

The learning process for Shobha Gurtu was full of variety and demanding.She came under gurus of the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana, and later learnt from Bhurji Khan, son of the legendary Alladiya Khan. She does not say a lot about her training, but is keen to emphasise the atmosphere in which music was nurtured... with affection, care and a sensitive eye for detail. Shobha is so modest about her music that she believes, she is a small speck in this vast ocean which has given her life meaning.

When you hear her singing, you cannot but be reminded of some of the other great women who preceded her - Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar. Yes, she heard them sing several times, in her younger days, but never got the opportunity to learn from them. After marrying a senior official of the IPS, Shobha continued her music helped by her father-in-law and encouraged by Nathan Khan, a nephew of Alladiya. Her husband too, a sitar player in his own right, indulged in music as both patron and performer. Travelling with her wherever she performed, he became her mentor.

What is special about this style of singing - the purab ang gayaki of Thumri singing?

The Thumri as many know, is an important form of Hindusthani music, which is second only to the weighty Khayal mode which is very elaborate in defining ragas. The text of the Thumri is mainly composed in Brij bhasha, a dialect of the Agra- Mathura region. Naturally the poetic content is mainly shringara -the love themes from the Krishna legend. Like the padams of Ksetragna in South India, Thumris elevate the erotic content by adressing the verses to a god, and bringing in an element of bhakthi. It is like the poetry of Jayadeva and his Geetha Govindam, the human heart longing for Divine love. The emotional content dominates the Thumri and artists are free to roam with their imagination when it comes to the raga. It is thus possible to literally indulge in poetic fancy when it comes to the raga. The mood of the evening dictates the flow of melody. It is not easy to sing Thumris, for they are not textbook versions that one can just learn and reproduce. The individuality of expression, the voice and its dramatic as well as subtle appeal, and the deep understanding by the artist of subtle nuances, creates that unforgettable harmonious taste of rasa.

With the Thumri of the 19th century becoming the essential repertoire of Kathak dancers, its singing developed on the lines of visual music. Folk elements also crept into Thumri singing giving it that rhythm which made the music dance.

However, the ambience of Benares in the 19th century gave the Thumri as we know it today its true character. Dance and music brought together the best talent, and talas from the folk idiom such as dadra and kaharva were used in Thumri compositions which explored lighter melodies. At the hands of great ustads, Thumri singing, as part of a performance of music became more rich in classical characteristics, making it popular with listeners of the mainstream who were unfamiliar with the old lifestyles of dancers and courts of patrons.

This is the purab ang style of singing - the eastern - Benares centric style popularised by artists like Siddheshwari Devi, as opposed to the old Lucknow style of singing.

In purely technical terms the Thumri of the 20th century is what is known as the Bol-Banao Thumri. And undoubtedly, the grand master of this Thumri singing in all its variety and shades of nuances is Shobha Gurtu. She can introduce a raga in thirty seconds and make you feel its essence in an exhilerating, yet fleeting moment.The poetry unfolds like a lotus petal at daybreak, gently but surely. Shobha Gurtu caresses the words, draws out the subtle undertones to elaborate the meaning. With each variation, she can paint pictures of Bhava. She is as much a singer as a devotee. She has a voice which is so expressive that her music dances in the listeners' mind.

Shobha Gurtu is a rare artist. Of another time, another culture. To re- create that feeling in music which was nurtured in her since childhood by a heritage she can call her own, has been her signal contribution to 20th century Indian music. She has taught students. But can they learn an entire culture without living it?

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